An open letter to my Turkish friends

An open letter to my Tur

For years I have been active in Israel-Turkey relations, traveling often to that beautiful country, writing about it and acquiring many good friends there. The Begin-Sadat Center (BESA) for Strategic Studies, which I direct, pioneered Israeli-Turkish academic dialogues and made it its business to educate Israelis about the nature and the strategic importance of Turkey by organizing symposia and lectures. Turkish academics, journalists, and political and religious leaders were always welcome at BESA. I believe that the Israeli-Turkish strategic partnership is of utmost importance and value to both countries, and to the West. As result of being a philo-Turk, some Israelis even have called me "Mr. Turkey." AS A true friend of that country, I am today greatly concerned. The Turkey I have learned to admire seems, unfortunately, to be sliding in the wrong direction. In contrast to many in the West who were suspicious of the Islamic credentials of the ruling AKP party, I welcomed the ascendance of the AKP in Turkish politics. I argued that traditional Kemalist secularism needed a religious corrective to help Turkey find a delicate synthesis between rich religious tradition and modernity. I believed that an AKP-led Turkey had the potential to become a true model of moderate Islam for the Islamic world; a world that is grappling, mostly unsuccessfully, with the challenges of modernity. Looking today at AKP foreign and domestic policies I am coming tentatively to the unpleasant conclusion that I was wrong. Turkey under the AKP is increasingly succumbing to Islamic impulses; relegating its political and cultural links to the West to a secondary priority. For example, Turkey welcomed the despicable President of the Islamic Republic of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinijad, for a formal visit in August 2008. No Western country has issued such an invitation to the Iranian leader. Moreover, in contrast to its Western allies, Ankara announced recently that it is not going to join any sanction efforts aimed at preventing Iran from going nuclear. Similarly, Turkey has deviated from the Western consensus by inviting Sudan's President, Omer Hassan al-Bashir, who was charged with war crimes and genocide in Darfur. Befriending such international pariahs, Ankara's moral stature is deeply hurt. Turkey's defense of Hamas, a terrorist organization, also indicates that Turkey has sacrificed its moral compass for a very primitive Muslim brotherhood. Even the Arab pro-Western states supported Israel's struggle against Hamas. The Turkish premiere's vehement and deeply insulting denunciation of Israel during Operation Cast Lead also grates heavily on my ears. We cannot simply chalk up his criticism to cynical domestic public opinion needs. At home, traditional Ottoman and Turkish tolerance is gradually being replaced by pressure to conform to Muslim mores and by intimidation to comply with government policies. Several friends in the business community confessed that sipping a glass of raki (the Turkish equivalent of ouzo or arak) in public could be very bad for receiving government contracts. A sensational trial of former officers, government officials, journalists, businessman and academics, accused of plotting against the AKP government (known as the Ergenekon affair), continues to occupy Turkish attention since 2007, and seems to play a role in intimidation of political opponents too. Similarly, the recent huge fine of $2.5 billion imposed by the tax authorities on the Dogan Media Group, which dared to adopt a critical attitude toward some government-sponsored activities, smacks of an attack on the freedom of press. Colleagues in academic institutions speak openly about leaving the country if the situation gets worse. THE AKP-led government is still playing mostly by the democratic rules of the game. It garnered only about 35 percent of the popular vote and it could be replaced if the fragmented Kemalist camp puts its house in order and comes up with a decent political leader. Such a scenario is unlikely, however, in the immediate future, despite decline in support for the AKP in the March 2009 municipal elections. The current negative tendencies in Turkish domestic politics and foreign policy orientation push it away from the West. Does Turkey really want to become more similar to Middle East countries? It is the job of my Turkish friends of all political hues to put a stop to this. Turkey is amidst the throes of an identity crisis, trying to find a successful accommodation between its Muslim roots and the challenges of the 21st century. It is at a historic crossroads. Hopefully it is not too late to choose the right path, despite the many signs that Turkey is slipping into Islamist retrogression. I sympathize with my many Turkish friends - secularists, traditional and religious - who are fully aware of the dangerous waters their government is navigating through. Hopefully, Turkish democracy is strong enough to choose the progress and prosperity that only a Western anchor can grant. The "loss" of Turkey to Islamism would be a great strategic blow to Israel and the West. But first and foremost it would be a tragedy for Turks. The author is professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University and the Director of the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies.